Thursday, July 26, 2007


dir Adam Shankman

The city of Baltimore doesn't feature too much in the cinematic world, being overshadowed by New York, Los Angeles, London and so forth. If Baltimore turns up as the setting for a film, chances are it's the work of Barry Levinson or John Waters.

True to form, Hairspray opens with an overhead shot of an extraordinarily flat and featureless Baltimore, 1962, a city in which even such carefree pursuits as dancing are performed in racial segregation. Waters, the king of bad taste, turned this into a camp, gender-bending comedy in 1988. His successor, Adam Shankman, has turned to the original film as well as the 2002 Broadway show for an unlikely musical comedy, the message being that people who are different can triumph.

Waters' muse Divine performed the role of heavy-set housewife Edna Turnblad, here reprised by John Travolta, with mixed fortunes. Travolta is so weighed down with make-up and prosthetics, he can barely waddle from room to room of the Turnblad home, let alone shake a leg in the dance numbers. Peering out from his doughy face, his eyes look like slits. It's quite disconcerting and his accent wavers from deep south to The Simpsons character Comic Book Guy.

In the role of perky upstart Tracy Turnblad, we get Nikki Blonsky, who pretty much impersonates Ricki Lake's original while Lake turns up in a cameo toward the end as a William Morris Agency scout. As nebbishy dad Wilbur, Christoper Walken excels, taking a break from his alpha male villain persona. He and Travolta actually make a pretty decent couple, taking a turn through the backyard laundry for some nifty dancing and romancing. Shame there was no kiss to seal it. Travolta also does give a sense of Edna's insecurity and fears for her daughter, as big people in a world that favours thin.

But Hairspray is troubled by its basic premise, that racial discrimination can be funny. Yes, Michelle Pfeiffer is in fine form as the racist station manager threatening to cancel the local dance show's Negro Day [sic]. Queen Latifah lends some gravitas and brilliant pipes as record store owner Mother Maybelle and she gets the best songs, too. Those two are posited at opposite ends of the moral spectrum and it's a pity they have no scenes together. Interestingly, though, Maybelle, who exudes confidence and self-belief, is given a scene in which she tempts Edna with a brownie.

But it's just not funny or politically savvy enough to really get to grips with the topic. Tracy is depicted as a well-intentioned kid trying to overcome her white privilege by befriending the put-upon black kids in detention. But how come we never see any black students doing anything but singing and dancing.... in detention? What kind of racial stereotyping is that?

Elijah Kelly is brilliant as Maybelle's son Seaweed, daring to cross the colour bar and romance Tracy's pal Penny (Amanda Bynes), but he has to toe the party line and appear grateful for the limited assistance offered by the white characters. It is Tracy, not any of the black characters, who suggests they march in opposition to the cancelling of Negro Day. As if it would never dawn on any of them to fight back.

The other message of fat acceptance is also a bit muddled, with much comedic mileage expected from the sight of John Travolta in a fat suit. How condescending is that?

In the end the best line falls to Maybelle as she bemoans the troubles facing the inter-racial couple: "you two better brace yourselves for a never-ending parade of ugly coming at you from a whole lot of stupid." If only the rest of the film were as sharp.

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